William O. Stephens will be one of the invited speakers at the upcoming Stoicon conference in Toronto later this year. His talk is entitled “Phobias, Terrorism, and Stoic Fearlessness”
How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?
I’m a professor of philosophy at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. My areas of expertise include ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, environmental ethics, and Stoicism and popular culture. But my interest in Stoicism isn’t merely academic or scholarly. I believe that the general Stoic outlook, nearly all doctrines of Stoic philosophy, and Stoic therapies for vanquishing fears, anxieties, and anger, promote mental and emotional health and happiness. I regard myself as a student of Stoicism striving to make progress living as a Stoic.
How do you currently makes use of Stoicism in your work?
I write about Stoicism and I teach Stoic authors in my courses. My two monographs are Marcus Aurelius: A Guide for the Perplexed and Stoic Ethics: Epictetus and Happiness as Freedom. I’ve written a variety of articles, essays, chapters in edited collections, and book reviews about Stoicism. My largest ongoing project is a manuscript titled Stoic Lessons in Liberation: Epictetus as Educator.
I teach Epictetus in my introductory level course Philosophical Ideas: Wisdom. Years ago I created a course on the History of Hellenistic Philosophy (which includes a major unit on the Stoics). I also developed a course entirely on Stoicism, in which we studied Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism (1998) and generous selections from the Roman Stoics. In 2012 I introduced a course called “Stoics in Film and Literature” to Creighton’s Honors program.
The film and lit. course begins with selected poems about the figure of the stoic, including Emily Brontë, “The Old Stoic” (1846) and Rudyard Kipling’s, “If” (1895). Then we study A Stoic (1916)—a charming short story by the British novelist and playwright John Galsworthy. The protagonist of A Stoic, Sylvanus Heythorp, is a decrepit old curmudgeon and firebrand who led his life as Kipling urges in his famous poem. Heythorp is discovered to have taken a private commission in a business deal for the sake of endowing a modest trust for his needy grandchildren. Against his doctor’s orders Heythorp deliberately consumes a huge meal, downs copious liquors, and exits life in order to escape being fired from his job and publicly humiliated by a petty attorney. As a story about pluck, fulfilling one’s role as a guardian, and opting for suicide both to save face and to shed a doddering, deteriorating body, it is a terrific vehicle for teaching Stoicism.
Epictetus describes his ‘Open Door’ policy about suicide in the Discourses, which we study at length in the course. Epictetus also teaches that the life of a Stoic is like the life of a soldier. We read U.S. Navy Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale’s essay Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’ Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior (1993). He explains how the Stoicism he learned from the lame slave saved his sanity, steeled his endurance under torture, and preserved his dignity during more than seven years as a POW in the Vietnam war. Stockdale led the other American POWs valiantly. He was awarded the Medal of Honor and was a candidate for Vice President as Ross Perot’s running mate in 1992.
Next we read Tom Wolfe’s long and lively novel A Man in Full (1998). The minor protagonist, Conrad Hensley, is a heroic young husband, father, and manual laborer who suffers a horrible streak of bad luck that results in him being unfairly charged with assault. To preserve his honor, Hensley rejects a plea bargain and goes to prison. There, by accident, he receives a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses at exactly the right time to become a Stoic convert. Epictetus teaches him to respect himself, focus on what is up to him, act bravely, and use his strong hands to defeat a menacing inmate who is a serial rapist. During an earthquake that destroys the prison, Hensley saves the life of his fellow cellmate and escapes. Now a Stoic teacher, Hensley saves the novel’s main protagonist, Charlie Croker, from sacrificing his self-respect and losing his moral integrity merely to cling to his vast wealth. Thus, Croker becomes Hensley’s Stoic disciple. The novel has colorful Stoic and anti-Stoic characters.
I pair Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations with the film Gladiator (2000), featuring Richard Harris as the emperor. An excellent analysis of the film is offered by John Sellars in his paper “Stoics on the Big Screen: Marcus and Maximus,” which we read with “Marcus, Maximus, and Stoicism in Gladiator (2000),” the appendix of my book on Marcus.
People who read one male Stoic author after another may think that Stoicism is a philosophy for men only. To correct this misconception my students and I examine the performance of Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone (2010). The course concludes with a look at Stoic ideas in Star Wars. My students read my essay “Stoicism in the Stars: Yoda, the Emperor, and the Force” in Star Wars and Philosophy (2005) after watching selected scenes from Episodes II, III, IV, and V. Yoda expresses a basic Stoic idea in his Jedi maxim: “Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering.” I argue that Jedis resemble Stoics in many, but not all, respects.
So, obviously I use Stoicism a lot in my teaching and writing.
When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?
When I was in high school I liked to read about ancient Greek and Roman philosophers in a 1972 World Book Encyclopedia set. I wanted to study philosophy when I went to college. After majoring in philosophy and Classics at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, I was fairly certain that I wanted to specialize in ancient Greek philosophy when I went to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania in 1984. Knowing my interest in the Socrates of the early Platonic dialogues, my mentor at Penn, Charles Kahn, suggested that I read Epictetus, since Socrates is Epictetus’ biggest hero. I had never read a Stoic author before. As soon as I took up Epictetus, I was hooked. The fervor with which Epictetus taught his students how to free themselves from fear, anger, envy, and self-pity was breathtaking. I wrote my dissertation on Epictetus’ ethics. When I began researching Epictetus I soon discovered that a scholar named Adolf Bonhöffer had written three entire books on Epictetus, none of which had ever been translated from German. The second book was on Epictetus’ ethics. So, I had to puzzle out a line by painstaking line translation of Bonhöffer’s Die Ethik des Stoikers Epictet (1894). In 1996 Peter Lang published that translation under the title Adolf F. Bonhöffer, The Ethics of the Stoic Epictetus: An English translation.
What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?
Using the power of reason to dispel anger, conquer fear, gain wisdom, and live well. Doing all I can to concentrate my energies on what is up to me and to remain calm about what is not up to me. The most important aspect of Stoicism is seeing how becoming the best person I can possibly be is possible by applying Stoic wisdom to every challenge I face.
In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?
Stoicism matters for calm perseverance amidst conflict and calamity. Stoicism matters for cultivating the virtues and becoming self-realized. Stoicism matters for living peaceably and cooperatively with other people. Stoicism matters for living in agreement with nature, which I believe means, among many other things, living sustainably and practicing ecological wisdom, veganism, and minimalism. Stoicism matters for liberating people through education so that they can rid themselves of fear, hatred, bigotry, greed, and selfishness. Stoicism matters in every way.
How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?
Throughout my career in academia I have dedicated myself to educating my students in a liberal arts education. According to this pedagogical vision, a well-rounded education in all the arts and sciences liberates the mind and transforms a human being into a well-rounded person, a person who becomes a lifelong learner, and a productive citizen in our democracy. As a professional philosopher, when I teach Stoicism to my students I’m teaching what I believe is the best philosophy ever conceived. There are certainly some serious criticisms of certain doctrines of ancient Stoicism. Modern Stoics ought to take these legitimate criticisms to heart and revise their Modern Stoicism accordingly. I encourage my students to think critically and creatively when exploring all philosophies. They need to work out their own views and defend them using the best arguments they can construct. But I’m a self-identified Stoic because, at the end of the day, I believe that Stoicism is a truer, more powerful philosophy than Platonism, Aristotelianism, Hedonism, Scepticism, Thomism, Cartesianism, Utilitarianism, Kantianism, Marxism, consumer-capitalism, and all the rest.
Outside the classroom, I play a lot of tennis. I struggle to practice Stoic equanimity when opponents muff line calls and behave in unsportsmanlike ways. I aspire to play tennis like a Stoic, but I have a long, long way to go. I do better applying Stoic thinking when I’m behind the wheel of a car. I also try to practice Stoicism in my personal and professional relationships. It’s difficult but rewarding.
What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?
No carelessness in your actions. No confusion in your words. No imprecision in your thoughts. No retreating into your own soul, or trying to escape it. No overactivity. They kill you, cut you with knives, shower you with curses. And that somehow cuts your mind off from clearness, and sanity, and self-control, and justice? A man standing by a spring of clear, sweet water and cursing it. While the fresh water keeps on bubbling up. He can shovel mud into it, or dung, and the stream will carry it away, wash itself clean, remain unstained. To have that. Not a cistern but a perpetual spring. How? By working to win your freedom. Hour by hour. Through patience, honesty, humility. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations viii. 51; Gregory Hays’ translation)
Water is the most supple and yielding of elements. Yet over time waves wear down the rocks along a shore line. Over time a stream can carve out a huge, deep canyon. Persistence, patience, and a calm, steadfast purpose are waterlike virtues Marcus admires. Don’t we all admire these virtues?
What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Stoicism?
Buy my books and read them! Even better advice is to read Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. There are very good recent translations of the works of all these Stoics. Also, everything Tony (A.A.) Long has ever written about Stoicism is absolutely first rate.
Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?
I invite your readers to email me any questions or comments about Stoicism that they have. I’m eager to meet and talk with fellow Stoic enthusiasts at Stoicon 2017 in Toronto.